If you have the opportunity to travel, travel.
That’s the thought that crossed Mary Bixler’s mind when a picture of polar bears popped up on her Facebook page advertising Natural Habitat Adventures to the polar bear capitol of the world — Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.
“Sometimes you just have to think of the thrill of the adventure and put the other details aside,” Bixler said. “They say the older you get, the thing people regret the most is they waited for someone to go with them and then the trips never happened.”
With polar bears listed as a threatened species in the U.S. under the Endangered Species Act as of 2008, Bixler thought this was her chance to encounter them in their natural habitat and learn about the “effect of human impact,” Bixler said.
The polar bear species is declining because of ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat from climate change. There has been a 40 percent population loss from 2001 to 2010, according to experts.
“It’s not whether animals such as the polar bear will survive. It’s whether man has the will to save them. I think we do,” Bixler said.
The 700 residents of the polar bear capital of the world in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, depend on tourism to sustain their economy. The town partnered with Natural Habitat Adventures and Great White Bear Tours, who provide jobs for residents in the tourism industry.
Bixler was greeted by a stern warning in Churchill’s little airport upon her arrival. “If you see a polar bear in town call polar bear alert 204-675-2327,” the sign read.
“Always: be alert and aware of your surroundings; travel in groups and make noise; stay close to a vehicle or other refuge; remember bears can be in town any time of the day,” advised the sign.
While on the tour, tourists safely view polar bears from specifically modified vehicles called Tundra Buggys built to navigate tundra terrain, tourists — and residents — must be careful at all other hours of the day and especially at night.
“I could not leave the motel at night because of the bears,” Bixler said. “The outskirts of the city are said to be visited by about a thousand polar bears.”
Since Churchill is so cut off from the surrounding area, Bixler noted that a gallon of milk was $9.99, a bottle of ketchup was $9.49 and a small package of Oreos was $6.99.
Dangerous bears are sent to “polar bear jail” maintained by the polar bear patrol authorities, Bixler said. Bears are lured into capture tanks by the scent of seal urine on burlap. Dangerous bears are tranquilized when captured and marked to warn residents of impending danger. The hope of the jail is that if bears are captured, they will avoid going near town in the future, Bixler said.
Many locals leave their cars unlocked in case someone needs to make a quick escape from a polar bear that wanders into town, Bixler said. Her closest encounter with a polar bear while in Churchill was on the edge of town about a mile from her motel.
On her trip, Bixler traveled with 15 other people she had never met before. Arriving to Winnipeg a day early before joining the tour group in Churchill, Bixler met a man who had never met a stranger. He offered her a ride to the Assiniboine Zoo.
“They say never get in a car with a stranger, but that’s exactly what I did when I wanted to visit the new polar bear exhibit at the zoo,” Bixler said.
Bixler ran into the man — Gordon St. Clare — at her hotel. She learned from the staff that he was a longtime guest and one of Winnipeg’s most respected columnists.
“He was always making sure the hotel guests got a good impression of Winnipegians,” Bixler said. “They assured me he was 100 percent safe to get in the car with.”
When traveling, Bixler said not to be afraid to meet new people. “Everyone is in the same boat. You all want to have an adventure,” she said.
The highlight of Bixler’s trip was when she got to take a dog sled ride into the Tundra with a local musher and his 16-dog sled team, Bixler said.
At the completion of the tour, Bixler received a certificate. “Congratulations! Mary Bixler on your successful polar bear expedition to visit the king of the arctic — a front-line encounter with conservation and climate change on the shores of Hudson Bay in Churchill, Manitoba,” signed Nov. 13, 2018.
“I didn’t get to see the Northern Lights, but I saw polar bears and there’s always another adventure,” Bixler said.